A team of researchers say they are on the verge of bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction.
Working out of Harvard University under the maverick geneticist George Church, the scientists are confident they will soon be able to create mammoth embryos in the laboratory. The next step will be to grow them in artificial wombs for the 22 months it will likely take for the fetuses to develop, at which stage they will then have successfully cloned and brought back the megaherbivore.
The team are set to publish papers in the next few weeks on how they aim to achieve this in more detail, but the basics are fairly well known. We have already sequenced the entire genome of the woolly mammoth, which went extinct on the mainland around 10,000 years ago but persisted on a small island in the Bering Strait until just 4,000 years ago. Due to this, scientists have been able to compare it with its closest living relative, the Asian elephant.
This allowed them to pinpoint which major genetic changes occurred in the mammoths that enabled them to survive the freezing conditions of the north. The team have been able to take these genes – such as those that give them long hair, small ears, thick layers of subcutaneous fat, and anti-freeze blood – and insert them back into the Asian elephant genome to create a hybrid species.
Now, this wouldn’t be a “true” woolly mammoth but instead a “proxy” species, showing all the traits and ecological functions that the original animals had. “The intent is not to make perfect copies of extinct Woolly Mammoths, but to focus on the mammoth adaptations needed for Asian elephants to thrive in the cold climate of the Arctic,” they write.
Yet because the Asian elephant itself is an endangered species, it would not be ethical for the team to attempt IVF with the mammoth embryos they create, especially considering the odds of successful implantation would be prohibitively low. Instead, they hope to create an artificial womb, not unlike what another team of scientists achieved last year, and grow the fetuses to term in the laboratory.
A possibly more prescient question about the project is not the how but the why. What is the point in spending all this time, money, and effort in bringing back a species that last walked the Earth around 4,000 years ago?
Well, one argument is that the technology to do this could one day be used to help bring back other species that are still around today but might not be for much longer. They hope that by understanding the changes that went into the mammoth adapting to a colder environment, it could help facilitate the adaptation of wildlife to climate change.
Effectively, by trying to bring back one species from extinction, it could potentially stop other extinctions from happening in the future.
The team also hope that by releasing herds of the mammoths to graze the tundra in Siberia, the animals could help slow climate change. To keep the planet cool, you want massive grasslands – also known as mammoth steppe – in the subpolar regions. Unsurprisingly, with the extinction of the mammoth, the extent of this steppe began to shrink.
This has had a dramatic impact on the ability of the environment to absorb and retain carbon, particularly as the underlying permafrost melts. It is hoped that by returning megaherbivores such as mammoths, they could restore this ecosystem to how it was, preserving the permafrost and preventing the possible massive release of methane if it completely melts.